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The Evolving World of Sixth Forms: The Challenge of Change

In today’s evolving educational landscape, the challenge for school sixth forms to justify their existence and remain relevant and appealing to students looking for a ‘college style’ experience is greater than ever.  As ‘consumers’ of further education, young people today have a multitude of options, experiences and opportunities open to them as they enter into the next stage of their educational journey. 

This new wave of students are clear about what they want, requiring a bespoke education that meets individual needs and expectations. They crave ‘newness’ or novelty of experience at post 16 but also a sense of belonging and ‘excitement’ for learning new things along with a stimulating learning environment. They want more freedom, bigger rewards, more choice, greater flexibility and a wealth of cutting-edge resources at their fingertips.  The real challenge is how schools interpret and realise these new demands: sixth form today must appeal to the young adult who expects autonomy, quality and choice and whose parents encourage this. It’s a world away from ‘school life’ as we know it.


Charlotte Harrison Director of Sixth Forms St MargaretsThe need for change

As well as the general perceptions of ‘freedom’, funding vs. the range of qualifications on offer can also prove challenging for many schools.  Creating an exciting, aspirational environment that mirrors a ‘college’ existence is no easy feat within the realms of a traditional school building.  Yet modern sixth form provision, even five years ago, is beginning to look tired and out of date.  Add to that, competition from state-funded colleges, independent ‘crammer’ colleges and even university-led foundation courses, all competing for the same pupils and it’s easy to see how the pressure on school sixth forms has grown in recent years.
Students want a college-style environment because they believe they need a ‘change’ from the limitations of their previous school life. Yet pinning down what this specifically translates to in reality, can be tricky for schools.  Whilst the need for ‘change’ can mean a great many things, a major factor for students is the need for greater freedom, in which case sixth form schools could revisit the current rewards on offer at Key Stage 5  – could students be allowed to sign out early, are they allowed to go out at lunchtime or could they ‘earn’ their freedoms through effort grades? How could this be ‘sold’ to them?

For other students it is about the need to move as far away from being that Year 11 school pupil (who perhaps has not enjoyed their schooling at GCSE) as is humanly possible. Sixth form is a chance to ‘remake’ a student’s reputation and start afresh.  In which case, is this about looking at how the staff perceive sixth form students moving through from Year 11? Is it about the language staff use to talk to sixth formers? Does the sixth form ‘feel’ different or more collegiate in atmosphere? 

If there is still a strong desire to move across to a college to experience these changes, schools could be proactive, drawing up a list of students to speak with, questioning perceived need against learning maturity or readiness for this environment. Rely on the expertise and knowledge of the Head of Year 11 in your school and include the Y11 pastoral team on this journey because their role in marketing is as important as anyone else’s in the school.

A conversation with the students and their parents to discuss these perceptions and their educational needs using evidence of their learning from data and teacher testimony will make a compelling case. Getting parents on board and to realise their role is very important in this decision is crucial so it is important to win the hearts and minds of the entire family.


A hard act to follow

Cutting-edge college facilities today can be a hard act to follow, with roomy seminar spaces, high-tech innovation, modern furniture, laid-back café cultures etc. therefore, schools need to take a creative look at their sixth form common rooms, study spaces, libraries and refreshment facilities to create that college ambience that students are looking for, if they are to truly compete. There is a place for school sixth forms who can offer this and manage well the challenges that come with it, operating within whole school rules and restraints.

Beyond, this, schools need to think about what they can offer well, which other institutions cannot. Where sixth form schools have an advantage is that the relationship with the Year 11 student is already established, and staff can form new relationships with external students quickly with a suite of transitional and induction marketing events. 

We can also use prior knowledge of existing students to communicate that individual needs would be better met in a sixth form school where they are known, where their current standard of work is known and therefore will receive more personalised academic attention quickly.  Of course, having an outstanding HE programme and the gold dust of supportive Alumni to offer careers fairs, panels, networking breakfasts, high profile visiting speakers etc. could entice students to consider their options more carefully. 

Partnering with other schools to ensure mixed-sex experiences or state-independent experiences is a great way to ensure students mix with people from diverse backgrounds, thereby replicating a more college-like experience. Ensuring your relationships, teaching and learning standards are known for excellence is also important and often the key reason students stay on at a school or will make the leap to a new school. It is about creating a loyal following based on faith in the ‘product’ you are marketing for this consumer-savvy market.


Separate but still integrated

Probably the biggest challenge is to keep the sixth form separate and also a part of the school that Year 11 students still want to attend for their further study. Using your happy sixth formers to engage in initiatives across the school such as peer mentoring, House systems, vertical tutoring and prefect- led events will help spread the message positively in addition to the more formalised marketing events.


Losing sight of the benefits 

That said sixth forms have a lot of positive elements to shout about. Teachers know the students personally and so rather than waiting until Christmas to settle in, make friends and learn how teachers work, staying in the same establishment for what is effectively the very brief study period of 18 months, can make a difference from an academic progression perspective.

Young people can lose sight of all the benefits a school can bring to their education outside of the classroom and that is a challenge for sixth forms. Sixth forms can offer an abundance of co-curricular activities, unrivalled leadership training and a chance to drive the direction of the provision as part of the student council/voice.  They can also provide the wellness and satisfaction that comes from being known in your own community, increased freedoms, individualised support and assurance that no-one will ‘fall through the net’ through regular monitoring and rewards. 

This is also where an outstanding Key Stage 5 PSHE curriculum is crucial, as is having an experienced pastoral team who know how to work with young adults and get the best out of them. Many sixth forms today also provide counselling services and mental health support, study skills initiatives, and commitment to work with parents.  

Often schools will market the results at sixth form and university destinations. Whilst those are undoubtedly important, a review of how to market well, the excellent pastoral work, which goes on in schools across the country, might be in order. It is something colleges have been marketing aggressively over the last few years and so, rather than a given, schools do need to draw attention to the marketplace in order to be a seriously competitive contender.


Signs suggesting different further education optionsRipping up the rulebook

Things are changing at a rapid pace and this is a real opportunity for sixth form leads to be creative and rip up the rulebook from the past 20 years.  Engaging in pioneering initiatives will genuinely help students- not just with anxiety and exam pressure but in life, during and after university. Currently, in schools, there are plenty of excellent university preparation courses offering basic skills on cooking, budgeting and relationships; elsewhere there are courses on assertiveness, interview/networking skills, public speaking and negotiating your first pay rise. 

Some sixth forms have even repackaged what they do and have adopted a university ‘elective’ style curriculum where alongside A-levels, there are optional electives on the EPQ,  BTECs and other vocational qualifications, politics/voting, debating, community service and even yoga for wellness. Moving towards a greater mix of vocational and traditional academic qualifications or life courses is one way that sixth forms are likely to evolve in the future.  With such a range of choice on offer and with the increasing pressure placed on schools to prepare students for their adult life and beyond, a school sixth form is very well placed to deliver above and beyond educational opportunities.

We don’t know what jobs will exist in the next 10 or 20 years, so if students are more directed towards skills as opposed to content to bridge the gaps in today’s and tomorrow’s workforce, we have a chance of creating fit for purpose sixth forms with perspectives and learning environments that are current and ahead of the curve. In the end, sixth formers are nearly and in some cases not quite, ready for the adult world and so the closer schools can bring them to this, in a way that they see as beneficial and exciting, the better. 


By Charlotte Harrison, Director of Sixth Form at St Margaret’s School 

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